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Future uncertain for 'life-changing' program for at-risk Vancouver students

Last Updated Jan 25, 2021 at 7:22 am PST

(Courtesy vsb.ca)

The Leadership and Resiliency Program helps ease the transition to high school for at-risk students in Vancouver

Shelley Dube says she and her son are devastated that a program that has been a 'godsend' may stop running next year

VANCOUVER (NEWS 1130) — Fear, worry, dread. Those are the emotions Shelley Dube experienced as she prepared to send her son, who has an anxiety disorder and has “struggled desperately” since kindergarten, to high school.

When she enrolled her son in a program at Van Tech designed to support kids through the transition to secondary school, “something finally clicked for him.” But the future of that program is uncertain.

It’s called the Leadership and Resiliency Program, and it began in 2015 in partnership with Vancouver Coastal Health. Dube’s son is one of about 600 kids who have participated over the last five years. The program has nothing to do with academics, but focuses on improving the emotional and social experience of school. Volunteering, regular one-on-one and group meetings, and outdoor activities are the core components.

“It is a program that’s designed to help young kids transitioning into high school who might face different risks and barriers, like mental health, anxiety, depression, intellectual disabilities, coming from families that struggle with poverty, addiction, involvement with the criminal justice system,” Dube explains.

“They just work with the kids at a level that’s not related to their academics, it’s just really related to them as people. The support is unreal.”

Future of ‘life-changing’ program uncertain

She says the program facilitator began connecting with her family over the summer, before Grade 8 even started. When Dube’s son arrived for his first day of school, he already had a connection to someone. This went a long way toward easing some of the worry and uncertainty.

“Change is, it’s so volatile and it’s so hard to navigate with kids with anxiety — all kids. But we were truly just dreading this transition and worrying so much about what this would look like for him,” Dube says.

“Because [the facilitator] had made contact for the program, he felt comfortable, he felt bonded. It was life-changing.”

Dube’s son has only been in the program since September of last year, but she says the change in her son has been overwhelming.

“The change is so vast from how he was last year in Grade 7, and honestly ever since kindergarten. It’s built and built and built, and who he is now — it’s so far beyond our expectations,” she says.

“100 per cent it’s because of this program. My husband and I are beyond thrilled.”

The program was set to end in March of 2021, and Dube says telling her son that it would not be there for him anymore was devastating.

“He said if they take away LRP, they’re taking away his biggest support at school, they’re taking away a place where he feels like he can be with other kids who ‘struggle like me,’ and that they’re taking away [the facilitator] from him which is such a bond that’s been forged so quickly and is so important to him,” she explains.

Pandemic shows perils of overlooking social, emotional well-being 

Dube says having a program based in school that involves no academic pressure is key, noting kids can have a range of complicated feelings about going to class.

“Some hate school, some use school as solace to get away from scary family situations, some kids are ambivalent, some kids like school. It’s just a real unifying piece of positivity, and it’s a great leveller.”

Vancouver Coastal Health confirms the program is only guaranteed to run until 2022.

“VCH has provided funding to support the program since 2020, and has also renewed program funding for an additional year, until March 2022, while it continues to explore longer-term funding options,” reads an email from a spokesperson.

RELATED: Clinicians worry pandemic is worsening youth mental health

Dube’s son started the program during the pandemic, which means he has not been able to reap all the benefits. Field trips and outdoor activities like camping have ben called off. The community service and volunteering component has been scaled back.

But she says the pandemic has revealed how crucial social connection and mental health are to overall well-being, and that programs like this one ought to continue.

“We’re becoming very well aware that through COVID people’s mental health is deteriorating at all ages. So you take children who already are at risk, or are already suffering with their mental health, you get them through a pandemic and a school year that looks nothing like they know, and then you yank a support out that could help so many kids in so many positive ways,” she says, noting one of the reasons the program was created was to intervene with at-risk youth early as a way of preventing crime and substance use later.¬†

“It really just, it has to continue. It’s just so, so short-sighted to not to fund this long term.”